Immersion Memoir and DO-OVER!
Posted by Robin Hemley on April 2, 2009 12:13 AM
Welcome to my blog. I promise I'll try to make it interesting. Of course, in advance of the May publication of DO-OVER, I will spend some time thinking about DO OVERS in general and particular, but I'll write about other things as well - the Philippines, for instance, where I've just spent the better part of a year on a fellowship as well as the literary life, traveling, family, and friends.
For me, every book I've written feels like a do over of sorts. I've written eight and with each book I feel as though I'm learning to write all over again. I've always tried to challenge myself as a writer, moving from genre to genre as well as different modes within a genre: immersion journalism in INVENTED EDEN, practical criticism in TURNING LIFE INTO FICTION, memoir in NOLA, and what I call "Immersion Memoir" in DO-OVER. So that's part of the reason I feel as though I'm continually learning to write all over again.
To me, in "Immersion Memoir," a writer creates a kind of framework to actively engage in experience and memory. Other Immersion Memoirs besides DO-OVER! include Danny Wallace's YES MAN (in which he gave himself the task of saying yes to everything for a year) and A.J. Jacobs' THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY, in which Jacobs decides to live by ALL the precepts of the Bible. Filmmakers have been doing Immersion Memoir for quite a while - think, SUPER SIZE ME or Ross McElwee's documentary SHERMAN'S MARCH.
I suppose someone could conceivably consider my book and these others as "gimmicky," but I would say that they're simply structured around a theme and that they are no less "Authentic" than any work in which the writer imposes a structure - which would pretty much include all novels and all memoirs. There's certainly artifice in all art and as writers know, writing is not simply a matter of recording life but shaping it in a kind of "return the favor" way. Life shapes us and we, in turn, shape life. That doesn't mean I invented anything in the book besides the structure. I didn't. I took copious notes.
In a way, writing an Immersion Memoir is like living a novel or a movie. As a kid, I sometimes used to imagine myself in a movie and even think about what theme music I might use (usually something James Bond-ish). It's much that way while doing the activities that constitute an Immersion Memoir, at least for me. You feel as though you're living in a story, which, I suppose, could seem a bit sociopathic if I always felt this way. Happily, I do not.
In some ways, I felt like both a participant AND an observer in my story. In my case, as I was re-doing various parts of the my childhood, I would, for instance, return to 8th grade and I'd simultaneously be thinking about my original 8th grade experience as well as the do over experience as well as how it would fit into my book. Despite that built-in self-consciousness, I never felt as though I was faking anything. The emotions I called up in the do-over's certainly felt and still feel "Authentic." The framework served as a springboard to discover and rediscover how I felt about people, places, and things that I thought had long-since vanished. For me, the book was an amazing opportunity to reconnect with my past in a way that I wish everyone who wanted could experience . . .
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